The masters of the GOP universe: How Trump & Cruz have seized the Republican primary by the throat

As the first primary dates approach, the establishment is on its heels, and two terrifying choices stand out

By Heather Digby Parton


Published December 14, 2015 8:35PM (EST)

  (Reuters/Scott Morgan/Chris Keane/Photo montage by Salon)
(Reuters/Scott Morgan/Chris Keane/Photo montage by Salon)

Another weekend, another series of Donald Trump interviews in which he runs circles around anchors who are simply flummoxed by the candidate, unable to get him to respond to questions like a normal person. Not that you can blame them. He's one slippery guy. And it has to be tough to keep your concentration when trying to talk to someone who is wearing such an odd color of make-up.

So, for the most part, Trump was Trump and they were stumped. But one question did elicit some real news. When asked about Ted Cruz's comments to some donors last week in which he called Trump's qualifications to be Commander in Chief into question, for the first time Trump went on the attack against his little buddy:

"You look like the way he's dealt with the Senate, where he goes in there like -- frankly like a little bit of a maniac. You're never going to get things done that way. You can't walk into the Senate and scream and call people liars and not be able to cajole and get along with people. He'll never be able to get anything done, and that's the problem with Ted."

It's unnecessary at this point to even point out how ridiculous that sounds coming from Donald Trump, the man who has insulted literally millions of his fellow Americans and most of the world, as well as the entire Republican leadership. But that's him. He's the only presidential candidate in history who actually believes he is the Green Lantern, and will, therefore, be able to rule not by fiat, but by the sheer force of his supernatural abilities to "get things done." All of this comes on the heels of polling that show a big Cruz surge, not just in Iowa, where he's overtaken Trump by a "yuuuge" margin but nationally as well. Cruz is no longer one of the fringe guys. He's for real.

Some of us predicted this a while back -- he is a smart politician and he's been positioning himself to take the anti-establishment vote from one or both of the early frontrunners from the beginning. Carson lost altitude when it became obvious that his experience as a neurosurgeon did not prepare him for the rough and tumble world of presidential politics and Cruz was there to catch his followers as they fell. Now he and The Donald are fighting it out for the 50 percent of the party that thinks the biggest problem for the GOP is that it just isn't crazy enough.

So Cruz tweeted a rather sweet and gentle response to Trump's taunts, indicating that he is not going to take the bait, but it's pretty clear that Trump is going to go into this week's debate loaded for bear. He does not like being in second place.

Meanwhile, the putative "establishment frontrunner," Marco Rubio, whose polling remains mired in the teens at best, made an appearance on "Meet The Press" and demonstrated why that is. When asked about Trump's proposal to ban Muslims from entering the country, instead of explaining that it's both immoral and counterproductive, he chose to emulate a bucket of lukewarm water and said:

"Obviously I don’t agree with everything he says … but we can’t ignore that’s touched on some issues that people are concerned about."

If he's trying to make Jeb Bush look tough by comparison, that's a good way to do it. (Indeed, one might assume at this point that any candidate on the so-called establishment track should be showing they are willing to do battle with Trump. If there's one thing that cuts across all the GOP lines, it's a deep and abiding yearning for a manly man to be a man and man-up. If you can't stand up to Trump, how are you going to stand up to all those nannies and busboys lining up at the border to destroy our way of life? How will you be able to assuage the fears of the millions of armed Republicans who eagerly face the dangerous risk of 30,000 gun deaths a year but are cowering in their boots over the prospect of being shot by a Muslim?

These are the challenges any establishment Republican has to face in this election and Rubio simply isn't getting the job done. Instead, he seems to be trying to compete on the wingnut track for some reason. Last week he went on the Christian Broadcasting Network and said that he would dispose of all of President Obama's executive orders pertaining to non-discrimination against gay people and work to reverse marriage equality. Chuck Todd pressed him to explain how he would do this asking if he would endorse a constitutional amendment:

MARCO RUBIO: As I’ve said, that would be conceding that the current Constitution is somehow wrong and needs to be fixed.I don’t think the current Constitution gives the federal government the power to regulate marriage. That belongs at the state and local level. And that’s why if you want to change the definition of marriage, which is what this argument is about.

It’s not about discrimination. It is about the definition of a very specific, traditional, and age-old institution. If you want to change it, you have a right to petition your state legislature and your elected representatives to do it. What is wrong is that the Supreme Court has found this hidden constitutional right that 200 years of jurisprudence had not discovered and basically overturn the will of voters in Florida where over 60% passed a constitutional amendment that defined marriage in the state constitution as the union of one man and one woman.

CHUCK TODD: So are you accepting the idea of same sex marriage in perpetuity?

MARCO RUBIO: It is the current law. I don’t believe any case law is settled law. Any future Supreme Court can change it. And ultimately, I will appoint Supreme Court justices that will interpret the Constitution as originally constructed.

That's a pretty telling statement. It's true that the Supreme Court does reverse itself sometimes, but this is considered a rare thing that requires a great deal of deliberation. He makes it sound as if stare decisis, the legal principle that says future courts will generally treat decisions of their predecessors as "settled law" unless something very substantial has changed in society, is not something he respects. That has not traditionally been the "establishment" line what with their alleged respect for tradition and all that rot. But then Rubio doesn't seem to know that.

Perhaps Rubio thinks the social conservatives will all come his way if he waves his hand at gay marriage and takes the position that all abortion should be banned in all circumstances unless the life of the mother hangs in the balance (a position that used to only be held by the most zealous of anti-abortion activists). But if he thinks he can out-Christian Ted Cruz, he has another thing coming. Cruz is the real thing down to his bones. Rubio doesn't stand a chance with that crowd unless all the others drop out, including Cruz and Trump.

Perhaps the most interesting news about Rubio didn't come from either his campaign or any other Republican. Politico reported that John Podesta, Hillary Clinton's campaign chairman, said that he believed Ted Cruz was the likeliest GOP nominee, followed by Trump and then Rubio. This sentiment was echoed by Clinton supporter David Brock who said something similar. He thinks Cruz is going to win the nomination:

He’s where the id of the conservative base is, I believe strongly. He’s got a lot of money, he’s a big super PAC, he’s also got low-dollar donors. He’s playing a very long game organizationally on the ground,” Brock said. “He’s going to win Iowa, I believe, maybe not New Hampshire, but then South Carolina,” Brock said, adding that the party rules that allow for winner-take-all primaries come March will ensure a Cruz victory.

Brock said he doesn't dismiss what he characterized as an outside chance that Donald Trump could win his party’s nomination — “You never discount a demagogue” — but said he is not prepared to pour resources into planning for the rise of Sen. Marco Rubio.

“I just don’t see it,” he said of the young Florida senator. “He has some critical weaknesses, his absenteeism, weird listlessness on the campaign trail, all the mess with his personal finances — there’s a lot. He hasn’t been vetted.”

Matthew Yglesias at Vox was confused by this and laid out a number of reasons why he thinks someone like Brock would say such a thing, ranging from a straightforward belief that Rubio is simply too weak to win to the rumors about some dirt on Rubio they know they're going to unleash that will knock him out of the race. (Maybe it's even some kind of ten dimensional chess move that Brock's playing to mess with Rubio's head.) But the most logical answer is really the simplest: Rubio is a terrible candidate. If you couldn't tell by just watching him, this article by Yglesias's colleague Andrew Prokop fills in the blanks:

Unlike most recent presidential nomination winners, who have invested serious time and effort into campaigning and building organizations in at least one of either Iowa or New Hampshire, Rubio has taken a positively relaxed approach to both. He doesn't show up very often, doesn't do much campaigning when he is around, and doesn't seem to be building very impressive field operations. And it's raising eyebrows. James Pindell of the Boston Globe wrote last week that Rubio's New Hampshire surge was "riddled with doubts," and that GOP insiders are bemoaning his "lack of staff" and "activity." National Review's Tim Alberta and Eliana Johnson reported Wednesday that Rubio's "weak ground game" was angering Iowa Republicans. And the New Hampshire Union Leader wrote an editorial headlined, "Marco? Marco? Where's Rubio?"

He isn't in the Senate doing the work he's being paid for, we know that. But he isn't in Iowa or New Hampshire either. The reason for this seems to be that Rubio believes that his big ad spending and face time on Fox is all that's needed to win.

"More people in Iowa see Marco on ‘Fox and Friends’ than see Marco when he is in Iowa," Rubio's campaign manager, Terry Sullivan, told the New York Times. And Alberta and Johnson report that Rubio's team believes "a sprawling operation weighs down a campaign and wastes precious resources that could be spent on TV ads that reach more voters." (Presumably, Rubio isn't making more campaign trips to the early states so he can spend more time raising money that can fund these crucial ads.)

Or maybe he's just lazy and thinks he can win by being charming. But then he would have to actually be charming, which he is not.

As we get closer to voters actually voting, the parameters of the race are starting to change and nobody really knows where it's going. But if we were to guess right now, we would have a three-way race between Trump, Cruz and an establishment player to be named later. Rubio has always seemed like a good bet on paper but he's underperformed at everything he's done since being the anointed the GOP's answer to Barack Obama. So, there's still a space for Christie or Bush or maybe even Kasich to make a move.

One thing we know, however, is that as long as the establishment dithers and is unable to coalesce around somebody, the Trump-Cruz faction gains strength and legitimacy. This whole thing may just come down to the two of them at which point the "establishment" will have to make a choice between the wingnut and the demagogue. You can decide which is which.

Trump & Cruz: A Match Made In Political Purgatory

By Heather Digby Parton

Heather Digby Parton, also known as "Digby," is a contributing writer to Salon. She was the winner of the 2014 Hillman Prize for Opinion and Analysis Journalism.

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